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Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas Hardcover – September 9, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2013 Sharon Stephens First Book Prize, American Ethnological Society

Honorable Mention for the 2013 Gregory Bateson Prize, The Society for Cultural Anthropology

The Atlantic Editors' "The Best Book I Read This Year" for 2013, chosen by senior editor Alexis C. Madrigal

"Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist at MIT, has written a timely book. Ms Schüll has spent two decades studying the boom in casino gambling: the layout of its properties, the addicts and problem gamblers who account for roughly half its revenue in some places, and the engineering that goes into its most sophisticated products. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas reads like a combination of Scientific American's number puzzles and the 'blue Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous."--Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times

"Addiction by Design is a nonfiction page-turner. A richly detailed account of the particulars of video gaming addiction, worth reading for the excellence of the ethnographic narrative alone, it is also an empirically rigorous examination of users, designers, and objects that deepens practical and philosophical questions about the capacities of players interacting with machines designed to entrance them."--Laura Norén, PublicBooks

"Schüll adds greatly to the scholarly literature on problem gambling with this well-written book. . . . Applying an anthropological perspective, the author focuses especially on the Las Vegas gambling industry, seeing many of today's avid machine gamblers as less preoccupied with winning than with maintaining themselves in the game, playing for as long as possible, and entering into a trance-like state of being, totally enmeshed psychologically into gaming and totally removed from the ordinary obligations of everyday life. . . . The book offers a most compelling and vivid picture of this world."--Choice

"If books can be tools, Addiction by Design is one of the foundational artifacts for understanding the digital age--a lever, perhaps, to pry ourselves from the grasp of the coercive loops that now surround us."--Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

"Natasha Schull's Addiction By Design is fascinating, absorbing, and at times, a bit frightening. . . . Schull's work will have wide relevance to many audiences, including those interested in technology studies, media studies, software studies, game studies, values-in-design, and the psychology and sociology of addiction and other technologically mediated behavioral disorders."--Hansen Hsu, Social Studies of Science

"Original, ambitious, and written with elegant lucidity, Addiction by Design presents us with a narrative that is as compulsive as the behavior it describes. The book repositions debates in the field of gambling and will surely become a classic text in studies of society and technology."--Gerda Reith, American Journal of Sociology

"Based on fifteen years of ethnographic work, Addiction by Design is an ambitious and thought-provoking book that challenges the neoliberal ethos currently governing the way in which governments and professionals think about gambling addiction."--Kah-Wee Lee, Technology and Culture

From the Back Cover

"A stunning portrayal of technology and the inner life. Searing, sobering, compelling: this is important, first-rate, accessible scholarship that should galvanize public conversation."--Sherry Turkle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

"A fascinating, frightening window into the world of gambling in Las Vegas and the technological innovations that deliberately enhance and sustain the 'zone'--the odd, absorbed state for which extreme machine gamblers yearn. An astute and provocative look at addiction and its complex moral, social, and emotional entanglements."--T. M. Luhrmann, Stanford University

"At the heart of Schüll's book is the interplay between the players and the machine; between the players and the machine manufacturers; between the players and the math program; and between the players and the 'zone' that the machines help produce. A tour de force that changes the dialogue on gambling addiction."--Henry Lesieur, author of The Chase: Career of the Compulsive Gambler

"Schüll's clear and dramatic writing style is itself addictive. One is drawn into the ways in which the interactions among the different stakeholders lead to players' experience of being drawn into a 'zone' where they remain until all resources are gone. This is a must-read narrative that points to the many variants of screen addiction possible today."--Don Ihde, author of Bodies in Technology

"This gripping, insightful, and poignant analysis of machine gambling offers a kind of object lesson in the intensified forms of consumption that computer-based technologies enable. An exemplary case of the way in which close, critical investigation of specific sites of capitalism can provide a deeper understanding of both intimate experience and widespread socioeconomic arrangements."--Lucy A. Suchman, author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations

"Schüll offers a provocative and important study of the imperative some people feel to lose themselves in a machine. The ethnography is rich and deep, shedding original light on the significance of addiction and gambling in American culture. The story told in the book is absolutely riveting."--Emily Martin, author of Bipolar Expeditions


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 9, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691127557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691127552
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #434,350 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Brenda Jubin on September 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Natasha Dow Schüll's Addiction by Design is one of the most compelling books I've read in the past few years. Not because I was ever captivated by slot machines or video poker. In my entire life I lost a total of $5 to a slot machine and, quite frankly, even then I didn't consider the experience worth anywhere close to $5. But the experience has changed, thanks to technology and mathematical algorithms; it has a deeper hook.

Schüll, an associate professor at MIT, argues that addiction to machine gambling stems from the interplay between the gambler and the machine. Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas and extensive interviews with both designers and addicts, she shows how the "duty to extract as much money" as possible from customers and the desire to play for as long as possible combine to produce a recipe for potential addiction.

Slot machines have come a long way from the coin-fed mechanical one-armed bandits. They now use video technology, which speeds up play significantly. On average, pulling a handle resulted in 300 games an hour. Video poker players can complete 900 to 1,200 hands an hour; the rate is similar on video slots. (p. 55) The financial flow in casinos has also sped up. Players no longer have to carry around heavy cups of coins or wait for payouts. Instead, casinos are "cashless." Moreover, players who run out of money can easily tap into their checking accounts, credit cards, or debit cards--in numerous jurisdictions right from their machines--to keep on going.

Early on programmers devised techniques "not only to distort players' perception of games' odds but also to distort their perception of losses, by creating `near miss' effects.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca L. Tushnet on January 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The best book on the techno-human intersection I've read in a long time, and also highly depressing. If you've read Temple Grandin on humanely getting cattle through the slaughtering chutes, you might recognize the same spirit in this depiction of best practices for casino design: "`passageways should keep twisting and turning through gradual, gentle curves and angles that smooth out the shifts in direction.' Aisles leading into gambling areas `should narrow gradually, so walkers do not notice the approaching transition until they suddenly find themselves immersed in the intimate worlds of gambling action.'" The games themselves are designed to create a false sense of efficacy in the gambler--players who feel they can have an effect on outcomes will keep playing longer. And they are designed to create a false sense of the odds of winning and the magnitude of wins: reels are programmed so that there are fewer opportunities to win than it looks like there should be based on the number of symbols on the reel; reels are programmed to stop so that it often looks like there was a near miss (and regulators ignored the deceptive potential, because it was good for the industry); "teaser" reels display before you play with more winning combnations than actually available; and then payoffs less than the original bet are rewarded with "winner!" notifications, creating "a sense of winning" and allowing people to play longer and more smoothly as their money drops to zero. It was pretty chilling to read that the most recent "subtle yet radical innovation is precisely [new machines'] capacity to make losses appear to gamblers as wins, such that players experience the reinforcement of winning even as they steadily lose.Read more ›
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By J. C. Stroissnig on March 26, 2015
Format: Paperback
I have no idea what to rate this book because one, I can't finish it, and two, my beef isn't with the contents per se.

I'm shocked that this book received nothing but 4 and 5 star reviews. Must've all been by academics. I'm trying, for probably the 5th time, to read some of this book and I just can't focus. It's written like a thesis paper. It reads like a thesaurus exploded all over a psych degree to impress an english professor. I was excited to get this book after hearing an interview on a radio program about it. I am researching design manipulation (for practical reasons, not academic) and this was absolutely perfectly the type of thing I was looking for.

The concepts are simple enough, and quite fascinating, but the writing is just awful. I'm not normally one to be so blunt (nor mean), but I can't help it, mostly because I'm shocked that I seem to be the lone voice. Here is a very typical example of the writing:
"To ignore the continuum of problematic experience among gamblers is to minimize the extent of the phenomenon, they suggest. Departing from the dominant medical emphasis on the psychological, genetic, and neurophysiological factors that might predispose an isolated subset of individuals to "maladaptive gambling behaviour," they seek to understand how commercial gambling activities and environments might create the conditions for - and even encourage - such behaviour in consumers."

I literally just turned to a random page and wrote down the first thing I saw. Do I understand every word in those two sentences? Sure do. Do I understand what the author is trying to say here? Sure do. Is it enjoyable to read in the slightest? Sure isn't. It reads like a dry textbook as opposed to a book you read out of want.
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